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Letter from Switzerland: Dragon Racing

November 5, 2001
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Hello All,

Spring is in the air. But as you read on you’ll see that the French coast isn’t on the same program. Russell Coutts, Brad Butterworth, and I are off to the YC Douarnenez Centre du Voile in France to race two Dragon class events. I’m excited to have the opportunity to sail with our Swiss America’s Cup helmsman and tactician.

On Thursday, Brad and I flew to Douarnenez, France. We left Geneva under bright sunny skyies only to arrive in France in a downpour. Is it possible the rain is following me? We then rented a car and drove to the regatta site and were introduced to our first Dragon. The Dragon is a three-person keelboat that’s more than 29 feet long and weighs about 3,600 pounds. We threw up the mast, but that was the end of the rigging session for Day One–no need to get absolutely soaked. We found a fantastic little restaurant in the vieux port and went to bed satisfied.

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Oh, I almost forgot. I went jogging before dinner for 40 minutes. Then a 20 minute stretch. I’m becoming a fitness junkie…but does a fitness junkie still dreads the training?

On Friday I got up and looked for breakfast. Apparently they don’t eat breakfast here, but I did find a bar (not too smokey) that served cafe au lait, and then I whipped over to a pastry shop, picked up a couple of croissants, and poof! there was breakfast.

We spent the next five hours rigging and tuning the Dragon we were going to race. Brad and I went out for a sail before the end of the day to make sure the gear was set up right. Found a good restaurant for dinner. You know what? Wine is cheap here.

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Saturday we had to pick Russell up at the Brest Airport. You know that restaurant that I said was good the night before, well it actually stunk. Not feeling to well today. I’m guessing it was bad moules (mussels). Russell arrived and we were off to the first race of the first event, a tuneup for next week’s Grand Prix, which will have 100 boats entered.

We had a nice sail to the start, and tacked and jibed several times to familiarize ourselves with this new beast. At race time the wind was 15 to 18 knots from the northwest with medium seas and cold water. We got splashed, we got cold. It was a good introduction to Northern France in the spring. We decided to head for the marine store after sailing to buy some warmer clothes. We also learned that the tune on the Dragon is critical and agreed to try some new settings tomorrow and improve our boathandling too.

Sunday morning at 8:00 a.m. we were up and looking for a real breakfast. Again, no luck; but I did find sandwiches for lunch. After a little tuning we were off for an 1100 a.m. start. The conditions were no wind, rain, and 5 degrees Celsius. The wind never came, but the rain was on us plenty. We were numb when they finally called it off. But it was nothing that 30 minutes in the shower couldn’t handle. The nice part was getting a chance to know Russell and Brad better.

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On Monday we left the dock with about 8 knots of breeze and sailed about 70 minutes directly upwind to the start. This enabled us to improve our tacks and tune with a couple of boats. For Race 1 we had a bad start and sailed from the wrong side of a shift, then fought hard to sail our way back into the top 1/3. Speed is a must in these beasts, and we’re starting to get a handle on the speed game. Race 2 we had a good start and caught the outside of the first shift. We sailed a good beat, rounded in the top 10, and stayed there. The weather today was sunny and a whopping 12 to 14 degrees Celsius.

To our surprise we ended up the short regatta finishing 12th overall out of 60 boats. The Dragon class doesn’t use a discard in scoring and has the most talented fleet I’ve seen in any class. European sailors love this boat, and among them are many Olympic medalists and former world champions (from all classes).

I have to say I’m really enjoying these “dinghy” races with my new bosses. You learn what you’re really supposed to do when you race! I can only assume that everyone reading this would have braved the elements to have a shot at sailing with these Russell and Brad. They’re competitive and knowledgeable, and you can immediately see how comfortable they are together while sailing. They communicate easily and very precisely. Brad has a feel for what Russell will need to know. For example, conversation about laylines and jibe angles are said and done with minimal effort.

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Sailing with the best has its perks. Plus, tomorrow is a lay day so we’ve found a golf course and will practice our game. Then in the afternoon we’ll sail with Tuis Palme ( a Danish champion) and try to figure out a few speed tricks before the championship, which starts Wednesday.

And did I mention that the wine is cheap here? Yes, I’m enjoying it. But that reminds me that our trainer, JP Eggar, started us a new fitness schedulelast week. We’ll be doing a rigorous program for the next 5 weeks. It’s a cool program, and includes some new techniques. The whole team is noticing a metamorphosis happening and is starting to see that hard work pays off. Or maybe it’s “Hard work stinks, but it does pay off.”

Cheers,

Kai Bjorn

Grinder

Swiss Challenge 2003

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